Justin Bourne played 16 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2007-08. (Photo courtesy of Justin Bourne)
It’s a weird feeling walking into a hockey rink these days.
It’s like walking into your old apartment and remembering the person you used to be.
There’s where we had some laughs. There’s where I felt some pain. There’s where I made decisions that affected my life.
I went to the Coyotes-Kings exhibition game, the first game I’d been to since a puck hit my jaw in December – a puck that forced my teeth wired shut for almost seven weeks, resigned me to the couch for months, and incidentally launched my writing career.
Man, that slapshot hurt.
But being at this game hurts in a different way. For the first time I’m watching a hockey season start without me, with uncertainty, excitement and potential buzzing throughout the rink like a skate sharpener. And just then, the questions started creeping up on me: am I really on this side of the glass?
In a small way I can relate to Brett Favre: I can still play, so why shouldn’t I?
And I guess the answer is: because at some point, you have to grow up and make the right decisions. It’s just hard.
I stopped playing the game because I felt the dream slipping. The physical damage done to your body is easy to justify if you play in the NHL. But can you justify it if you’re earning a modest living playing in the American League or ECHL? Without the big bucks to lean on, won’t you still find yourself waking up one summer with that inevitable question:
You’re at square one again. What do you want to be when you grow up? Playing in the NHL means you never have to answer that question, but I realized I would have to. I made what I thought was the smart choice. Doesn’t it make sense to start that second career younger than older? I obviously thought so.
Choosing between practicality and passion? It’s a harder decision than people realize. In trying to make the right life decisions, I gave up that passion. Watching this game now isn’t making it any easier for me. What have I done?
When you give up your dream – not because you have to, but because it is the right decision –how are you supposed to cope?
As players, we continually evaluate our teammates and our competition saying, “he’s not that good” under our breath and to each other because “I” need to be better than “him” to survive. Now, as a writer, all-too-often I find myself saying “he’s not that good” only to get responses from readers in stats, dimensions and potential.
I’ve never been a guy prone to negativity – “he’s not that good” is just fully burned into my competitive psyche. To be good, you learn to think you’re the best.
I poured hour upon hour of after-practice time skating into off-hand one-timers. Do you have any idea how hard that shot is? Four years of college I worked on that after practice with my roommates Chad Anderson (past season: Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL), Charlie Kronschnabel (past season: Iowa Chops, AHL) and Nick Lowe (past season: full-on scientist).
And what good is that skill now? What good was taking rocket passes on my backhand? Toe-pulling the puck? What about the hours of conditioning?
It feels like time wasted. Maybe writing is my attempt to justify the hours I put in, one at a time, for almost 27 years. The funny part is, I can’t let go of all those power skating schools I begrudgingly attended instead of playing golf during the summer months. I knew that was a waste of time. You bend YOUR knees, buddy.
So I sat down at the game and ordered a beer. I stood and listened to the anthem – watched the players rock in anticipation. I looked up and watched a couple players I knew from junior, college and pro. He’s not that good.
I played on my BlackBerry. I drank my beer. I’ll never be able to get into it like a fan.
Ignorance is bliss, and for me, the game is tainted by knowledge. That guy isn’t mad, he gets paid to enforce. That guy skating really hard? The “buzz saw” that fans love? He’s over-pursuing, making his teammates have to compensate because he’s out of position. I’ll never be able to cheer for guys I competed against. It’s like admitting defeat.
Something about my separation from the game makes me numb toward it now. Don’t get me wrong – I was ready for this change. I’m ready to live in one city, in one home. But it doesn’t mean I won’t miss that other life.
My Dad spent 14 seasons in the NHL, then made the mistake of trying to fully leave the game when he retired. It took years for him to realize that hockey was the piece he was missing. I’m not making that mistake. It was good for me to face the game head-on, but I realized one thing: this is going to be harder than I thought.
Some day every player has to leave the game and we’ll all experience the change differently.
For now, I’m sticking with “numb.” The 2009-10 season began without missing me, without missing a beat and with a little dust in my eye before the puck dropped.
But I’m ready now. It’s time to drop the puck on career No. 2.
‘Cause those other sports writers out there? They’re not that good.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.